How Loyalty is Challenging Traditional Bookselling

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Loyalty Bookstore, an intersectional store with two locations in the DC area, works to bring diverse books to the community and create an inclusive space for their customers. I talked to co-owners Hannah Oliver Depp (she/they) and Christine Bollow (she/her) to learn more about Loyalty’s origin, motivation, and plans for the future.

Hannah Oliver Depp had been working in the book industry for a while when she decided to open Loyalty. The move was largely born of frustration — the industry just wasn’t where she felt it should be.

The answer to having an unlivable wage, having no chance of advancement, of the overwhelming whiteness and ableism and straightness of publishing, was [to] ‘wait,’ ” she explained. “I was excited by the welcoming people of the industry, but frustrated that after the genuine welcome folks were continually stalling out, burning out, or having to leave because we couldn’t support them.” 

On top of that, as a Black bookseller, the communities she was serving were largely white and affluent. 

“I missed working in my direct community as opposed to working across town in places with plenty of resources. [I was] being told that my people didn’t read books despite obvious evidence to the contrary.”

So Oliver Depp founded Loyalty, and originally operated as the sole owner. Eventually she brought on Christine Bollow as co-owner, a move that has enabled them to both push the store further and take better care of themselves. 

“We are both overachievers and ambitious people who have learned so much from the kindness of others and our own disabled status. [We’ve learned] to be kind to ourselves — something that is possible with trust in another person to back you up when you can’t do everything you want to in a day, but also who believes in your dream just as much if not more than you do! We have each other’s backs,” Oliver Depp explained.

Today, Loyalty’s shelves boast unique titles, staff picks, small presses, as well as more mainstream titles. 

“[As] an intersectional bookstore, we exist in the gray area and complicated space of how we are all interconnected. None of us are free until all of us are free!” said Oliver Depp. “We work hard so that our shelves show the full breadth of diversity in our neighborhoods first and foremost, and in the wider world as well.”

They serve multiple communities, often reaching beyond their brick-and-mortar locations with events. This year alone, they’ve hosted more than 200 events.

They’ve also put their own twist on traditional bookstore offerings with Loyalty Bundles and Leap of Faith Subscription Boxes. Originally a pandemic innovation, they remain on the menu today. 

Loyalty Bundles, available for kids and adults, give the Loyalty team a chance to handpick a few titles for you based on a questionnaire. The bundles are available in multiple sizes, and every single one is unique to the customer. The Leap of Faith Subscription Box is a little more standardized. For this quarterly box, Loyalty chooses an upcoming marginalized author to spotlight.

“By creating Leap of Faith, we were able to find a way to give a full-throated endorsement to a debut author from a marginalized background,” Oliver Depp explained. “With the Bundles, we get to ask cheeky questions and get to know even more about our customers and hopefully reward their trust in us with truly unique picks for them.”

Mindful of the trust their customers put in them, the Loyalty team draws on their wealth of book knowledge to choose the contents of each bundle and subscription box. If you want a taste of their book recommendations:

“We’re both really looking forward to No One Dies Yet by Kobby Ben Ben, out February 13.” said Christine Bollow, “Kobby is a friend of mine from the bookstagram community and I can’t wait to read his book! I’m also very excited for Lisa Ko’s next book, Memory Piece, out March 19.”

On top of normal operations, Oliver Depp and Bollow shared some of their upcoming goals. They’ll be debuting their bookmobile next year, allowing them to significantly expand their reach.

“We’re calling her Octavia Bus-ler and it’s such a perfect next step to bring as many books to people in the DMV by partnering with some of our awesome local not-for-profit organizations. “

They are also running an Indiegogo campaign until the end of the month to raise funds for long term goals, like increasing security at Drag Queen Storytimes, and setting aside an emergency fund to deal with unexpected issues. A detailed list of their fundraiser goals is available on the Indiegogo page.

“But our biggest goal for 2024”, says Hannah Oliver Depp, “is empowering our booksellers and bringing them into decision-making at the store so we can grow to the full vision for Loyalty as a community space and bookstore, where you find books and gifts you couldn’t get anywhere else, or an experience with authors and fellow book lovers that is totally unique.”

This goal ties back to Oliver Depp’s original motivations for starting Loyalty.

“Our booksellers are the past, present, and future of bookselling,” she said. “We have to make it sustainable as a career and business. We cannot do this alone; it is going to take all of our partners. [And] we have to keep this fact in mind as the essential center: The bookstore is the booksellers.”

And her parting advice for anyone looking to get into bookselling?

“The generosity of booksellers is mind boggling, and the more you give out the more you get. But, as with all things, it is a job and you absolutely need to keep some part of this beautiful pastime of books separate from your book [job] life. And…” she laughed, “If you don’t like a book, it’s okay to move on to a different one.”

If you're in the DC area, stop by one of Loyalty’s locations and check them out!